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Part 16: Rules of Biblical Interpretation |


Understanding How to Accurately Interpret the Bible

The Bible is a truly amazing book written by over 40 people in three languages, across three continents and spanning some 1,500 years - it contains one consistent theme, without a single contradiction.

Those who claim the Bible has contradictive verses fail to accurately interpret the text, because they either:

  • Have not accepted Jesus Christ and received the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:12), and therefore cannot “receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14); and/or
  • They are not following God’s instructions for “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) in order accurately discern the intended meanings of what God is saying.

In order to do this, there are two interpretative principles one must adhere to:

  1. First, you must pray and ask the Holy Spirit to impart understanding to you, because one of His functions is to “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). God speaks through His Word and anyone can hear and understand what He is saying with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Second, you must read the Bible in the manner in which it was written. As the Bible was compiled over centuries, we would expect some words to change their meaning over that time. Our culture, language and society are also very different to that of Bible times. In order to accommodate these variables, we need to apply four generally accepted rules of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics): literal, historical, grammatical and contextual.

The Golden Rule of Interpretation is summarised as:

“When the plain sense of scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic (self-evident) and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.” Dr. D.L. Cooper

The Rules of Biblical Hermeneutics are defined as:

Literal: This means that each word is given the same exact basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary, customary usage, whether employed in writing, speaking or thinking. In essence, unless it’s clearly indicated otherwise, we’re to understand that the Bible means exactly what it says.

Passages which are not intended to be taken literally include poetry, figures of speech, hyperbole or idioms. Parables are another example and are usually identified as such which alerts us to the fact that they’re meant to be understood symbolically. Dreams and visions may often incorporate symbolism, though some are written to be predominately literal, as is the case with much of the Book of Revelation.

Historical: This means that each passage is put into its proper historical setting and surrounded with the thoughts, attitudes, and feelings prevalent at the time of writing.

For example, in Biblical times the Jewish view of the Messiah was one of a charismatic leader like King David. In seeking the Messiah they were therefore looking for a man, not God in human form - Jesus. Knowing that helps us understand why they failed to recognize Him and accused Him of blasphemy when He claimed to be God.

Grammatical: This means that words are given meanings consistent with their common understanding in the original language at the time of writing. A good concordance can be beneficial in this area.

Grammatical interpretation also includes following recognized rules of grammar and in its more advanced form, applying the nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages to the understanding of a passage. For example, the Gospel of John begins with:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2)

In this verse “the Word” refers to Jesus, because in biblical times the Greek and Jewish people often referred to God Himself in terms of His word, directly calling Him “the word of God”. However in this passage, “the Word” is His own entity, being “with God” yet also at the same time being God Himself because “the Word was God”.

So, the Father and the Son (the Word) are equally God, yet distinct in their Persons, and together with God the Holy Spirit make one God in three Persons. All eternally co-existing as “He was in the beginning with God.”

Contextual: The rule of contextual interpretation involves always taking the surrounding context of a verse/passage into consideration when trying to determine its meaning. It also can mean being open to the cultural, religious or historical setting of the events described in the text. In most cases the Holy Spirit has also prompted the Bible’s writers to place indicators in the text surrounding a passage to guide you in interpreting it.

For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 the apostle Paul compares our life to that of an athlete, training and competing for crowns. The reference to personal effort in order to obtain a prize tells us that the passage is not about salvation, which is a free gift, but about additional rewards that believers can earn through personal effort after being saved.

Internal Consistency. The Bible, being the word of God, cannot contradict itself. The Lord is just and righteous so He can’t say something in one place and something different in another. He knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-10) so He can’t change His mind or take back something He’s given. Everything He says has to agree with everything else He says. For this reason, when you follow the above principles the Bible is self-interpretive.

If you find a particular verse confusing or difficult to understand, make sure you’re prayerfully and accurately applying biblical hermeneutics as “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33). He wants to reveal Himself to you through His Word, doing so by providing spiritual discernment to those who diligently seek Him.

If you don’t have a Bible, you can read the Bible online or download the mobile app. We recommend the New King James Version (NKJV) as it’s widely recognised as an accurate translation. It also capitalises all pronouns and other names used in reference to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in order to show reverence and clarify exactly who the text is referring to - which can be quite helpful.

If you’re new to the Bible, it’s helpful to be aware that the Old Testament is the story of God and His people before the coming of the Messiah - Jesus. The New Testament picks up the story beginning with the birth of Jesus. The best place to start is the Gospel of John. This book is John’s eyewitness account of the life of Jesus with a focus on who Jesus is. John’s purpose in writing is to help us believe, making it the ideal place to start.

“but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31).

Then you should read the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke which are known as the three Synoptic (see-together) Gospels, each of which describes the ministry of Jesus from a different perspective, yet all focus on what Jesus taught and did.

“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)



Note: Throughout this site, all quoted Bible verses are from the NKJV and any emphasis contained therein has been added.



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